Like all things in nature there is co-existence or no existence, and when it comes to the resourcefulness of wildlife everything is up for grabs. On a sunny afternoon back in 1996 I came upon a group of DNR conservation officers doing some fish shocking in some fairly unobstructed and nondescript water, nothing more than typical meadow stream water. I pulled out of the water and went up the embankment to get out of their way. It was a long mundane shallow run that stretched for 50 yards, slightly riffled water that had no real “fishyness” in personality. There were no pools either upper or lower to this location.
After about ten minutes I realized that they were netting fish that quite honestly were between 18 and 22 inches and in the cooler they went. Again this was water that typically most fisherman would pass up at first glance and this particular area was really no more than 16 to 24 inches deep. I was a bit dumbfounded by the size of these brown trout relative to the stream geometry.
About a month later in the evening I mustered up the energy to sit on the bank in the same location till about ten at night and wait to hear some predatorial sipping and chomping. I was happily greeted by these sounds. I entered the stream slowly and turned on my headlamp and hugged the embankment. Soon I saw wakes and silt trails of darting fish in the flat runs but they went directly into the embankment. Like meadow stream banks they are level and the grasses lead towards the edge with a slight undercut but not much. I had often seen muskrats in this area and came to the conclusion that these larger browns were foraging in the night and were in lies during most of the daylight hours. Lies that could very possibly be muskrat dens yet positioning themselves so that they were still getting oxygenated water from upstream so as not to be in a passive position.
The muskrat (Ondatra zibethica) is not actually a rat, but is classified as a rodent because of its teeth. These smallish critters have four large yellowish incisors in the front of its mouth. These animals also have flat molars for grinding vegetation. North Eastern muskrats average about 2 pounds in weight and 2 feet in length, including a vertically slightly flattened 8-to 12-inch tail. The waterproof fur is soft and thick and is generally dark brown on the back and sides, becoming light grayish brown on the belly. The muskrat has a stocky appearance due to the apparent lack of a neck. They are nesters and gatherers and love to bore holes in undercuts and embankments. They can be transient from season to season which is intriguing to me from the standpoint that the abandoned den can be repurposed as a fish lie. After some skepticism on my part I decided to come back the next day and wait out these larger cave dwellers. There was a little olive hatch coming off of the water and there were some super sippers, big bulges, and purposeful takes. I hooked into a nice 17inch brown that took off straight into the embankment. He bolted into a muskrat hole and popped my tippet. I looked up on the grass and sure enough there was a second hole going straight into the ground. It was as though a whole new process flashed into my now lathering brain. We typically look for obstructions, root wads, sweepers, weirs, riffle runs, tail waters, and deep holes as the usual suspects. But this was a new twist for me. To this day I now look for larger browns differently in meadow streams, and shallow spring creeks, an undercut is a good lie but a muskrat hole opens a bigger opportunity especially when you consider the dry fly potential late in the evening and early in the morning. So for all of the bridge trolls, pocket water pals, pool people, and sweeper loafers, you may consider looking for some less noticeable, unsung, unloved pieces of water for the big ones.